By Bruce Court
Have you ever heard a job candidate give a great response during an interview about how they would approach a work situation, only to later find out that they act very differently on the job? Or have you ever received vague feedback from a boss or colleague that left you unsure of how to improve?
When it comes to workplace conversations—especially with difficult topics—it often seems easier to be vague. We talk about how we might approach a problem rather than what we’ve done to solve problems, or we gloss over negative feedback by making general comments rather than addressing specific actions. But ambiguity leads to misunderstandings about expectations for the future, which is a recipe for failure.
These ambiguous situations are why we at DDI developed the “STAR” format to gather information in key situations. We’ve been using this approach for many years as a foundation to our interviewing, feedback, and performance management systems, and continue to find new and valuable uses for it.
Let’s start with an explanation: What is a STAR? STAR is an acronym for a framework that ensures all the important information is covered during a discussion.
- The letters S and T represent the Situation or Task that provides the context. They answer the question about why a person did or did not do something.
- A is for Action, explaining what was done (or not done) as well as how it was done.
- R stands for Result, revealing the impact of the Action (or inaction).
When you collect a STAR, you gain a complete picture of a specific situation, including the context, what the person did, why they did it, and how things turned out. One of the most helpful times to use the STAR format is in an interview situation. A good way to start collecting STARs is to have prepared behavioral questions focused on the requirements for success in the position. When combined with the interviewers’ ability to determine what information the candidate has shared in their responses to the questions and diligent follow-up by the interviewer, multiple STARs will be available to predict the likelihood of success in their next assignment.
Ideally, every candidate answers every planned question with a STAR, but sometimes they don’t—or won’t. Candidates may offer partial STARs where one or more components of the STAR is missing; or they respond with a false STAR, which lacks real substance.
False STARs contain vague statements, opinions, or speculation. For example, you can spot a false STAR when a response starts with, “I usually,” “We often,” or “I would like to.”
Let’s say you ask a candidate to describe how they work with their colleagues in engineering and they respond, “I usually had no problems with the engineers. Some of my colleagues did, but I generally got on well with them.” What does that tell you about their approach? What’s missing? Later, you ask how the candidate dealt with resistance from a co-worker and they say, “The next time I get that much resistance, I would ask my manager to help me handle it.”
What past behavior is the candidate describing? What do you know about what they did or didn’t do?
When explaining the behavioral interviewing process to hiring managers, I describe the requirements for success in a position as being like creating a shopping list before heading out to the grocery store. The STARs are the equivalent of collecting the required items off the shelves and placing them in the cart. At the end of the interview, the interviewer can measure the STARs alongside the description on the shopping list to determine if the behavior measures up to what is required in the position. Weighing all the evidence (STARs) enables hiring managers to make an informed decision.
But interviews are just one way to use the STAR format. For more about how to use STARs in feedback and performance management settings, check out my full article.